Kenny Barron in the Higher Echelons
If 70 is the new 60, then Kenny Barron’s been a full-fledged pro since the age of 7. Actually, the pianist was 17 when he first worked with Yusef Lateef, and Yusef included one of Kenny’s compositions and two of his arrangements on his 1960 recording, The Centaur and the Phoenix. Barron made his recording debut the following year with his saxophone-playing brother Bill, and then on James Moody’s recommendation became a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet before he was 20.
Barron spent several years with the trumpeter, then toured and recorded extensively with Lateef, whom he credits as a major influence on his development as an improviser and with teaching him to "be responsible." Yusef also encouraged him to complete his education, and that led to Kenny becoming a Professor of Jazz Studies at Rutgers in 1980. He’s also on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music. He apparently takes teaching and mentoring to heart; his "baby bands" have included former students vibraphonist Stefon Harris, drummer Kim Thompson and flutist Anne Thompson; he's recorded good tunes by proteges; and he's made sideman appearances with younger masters like Joel Frahm, Jon Irabagon, and Harry Allen. (Bill Barron, 16 years Kenny's senior, was a longtime faculty member at Wesleyan University. He died in 1989. After I'd presented a feature on him a year or two earlier in Jazz a la Mode, Bill wrote to say that it may have been the only time he'd ever heard his music on the radio. Then as now, jazz people deserve better. )
Honored as an NEA Jazz Master in 2010, Kenny last graced a stage in this area when his trio played the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont, in October 2011. It was the first concert at the Latchis following the flooding that devastated downtown Brattleboro that summer, and Barron, bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa, and drummer Jonathan Blake made it doubly memorable with two stunning sets of music.
(photo by Jordi Sunol)
Today is Kenny Barron’s 70th birthday. The Philadelphia native has been hailed for five decades for his sophistication, sensitivity, and versatility. Stan Getz said, "He never plays too much, he never plays too little. He never strains. He flows." Kenny's relaxed facility apparently began its ease of flow under Gillespie’s leadership. In Dizzy’s memoir To Be or to Bop, Barron says, “One of the main things I’ve learned from Dizzy is…not to play everything you know all the time; save some. Breathe! Breathe when you solo.”
I’d seen Barron several times before I met the record producer Ozzie Cadena at a jazz conference in Los Angeles in 1987. Ozzie’s heyday was the 50’s and 60’s before Kenny emerged as a leader, so I’ll never forget him saying, “If the record business had its priorities straight, they’d be making records on Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Kenny Barron every day.” I readily agreed, all the while impressed that Cadena placed Barron in the pantheon with Jones and Flanagan. Then again, as the BBC's Dave Gelly says, "Even among the higher echelons of advanced jazz piano, Barron's imaginative fluency is...remarkable...Nowadays, treatises and instruction books on jazz harmony include quotations from Barron's work more frequently than from almost any other source."
In addition to his formative experiences with Gillespie and Lateef, Barron enjoyed a mid-career association with Stan Getz that began in 1986 and served as a capstone to his great work as a sideman. While the collaboration lasted only five years before Stan’s death in 1991, it was long enough for Barron to come to even greater prominence and to emerge as the most ideal of the many great pianists Getz worked with, including Hank Jones. Donald Maggin’s biography, Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz, quotes a review from one of Barron’s first appearances with Getz’s quartet, a concert at Stanford University. “Barron easily matched Getz’s renowned lyricism and sweeping melodic lines…Barron never forced his inventiveness…”
In Maggin’s view, Barron “quickly convinces the listener that Stan had never before found a pianist whose sensitivity so felicitously matched his own. The two men show an uncanny empathy based on a shared lyricism and an irresistible sense of swing. ” Getz put it like this: “Kenny’s the other half of my musical heart...I've been blessed with brilliant piano players, Jimmy Rowles, Albert Dailey, Chick Corea, you name them. But none of them moved me quite like Kenny.” (Here they are at Umbria in 1990 playing Barron's great original, "Voyage.")
Most of the recorded material on Getz and Barron comes from performances at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen and at the Glasgow Jazz Festival. Serenity, an EmArcy release from the Montmartre in 1987, is one of my Desert Island essentials, while the sublimePeople Time is culled from the duo performances that Stan and Kenny made only three months before Getz died on June 6, 1991. Getz gave Barron equal billing on the release. As for Barron's own output, it’s hard to say if Ozzie Cadena would be pleased with how attentive jazz labels have been since 1987, but at this writing Kenny has at least 40 releases to his credit as a leader, and well over 200 as a sideman; not exactly one-a-day, but comparable to Jones and Flanagan at least.
We’ll hear Kenny Barron in Monday night’s Jazz a la Mode with Gillespie and Getz, as well as Sphere, and various quintet, trio, duo and solo recordings. We’ll also hear his new Sunnyside release, Kenny Barron & the Brazilian Knights, featuring trumpeter Claudio Roditi. In both Gillespie and Getz, Barron worked with North America’s most influential masters of bossa nova. With his 1993 release, Sambao, he found his own way into what he calls this "joyous, sensuous music" as both a composer and a collaborator with Trio Da Paz, and in 2002 he recorded Canta Brasil which reunited him with Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta, and Duduka DeFonseca. What a critic described as a "sidebar" project 20 years ago has gradually become a prominent vehicle for Kenny's flowing lyricism as a writer and pianist.
Barron celebrated his birthday at the Village Vanguard this week, where he led a quintet featuring drummer Lee Pearson, trumpeter Brandon Lee, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, and his longtime bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa. Barron describes jazz as “music of the moment,” and the set that NPR recorded on Friday night not only embodies that basic truth about the music’s spontaniety, but also contains a dedication to Kenny’s dearly departed friend, Mulgrew Miller, who died on May 29. Grew’s “Second Thoughts” is the second piece in this 72-minute set. Enjoy it here.
Hear the entire show here: